Her song, her voice, addressing Islamist suppression of women’s words with Irina and Najat 

Her song, her voice, addressing Islamist suppression of women’s words with Irina and Najat 

By | Rachel Brooks

March 31, 2021 

All across the Muslim world, women’s rights, and the voice of women have been suppressed in a series of ways crippling the rich culture that lies beneath the surface of politicization. In a recent controversy, Afghanistan struggles to enforce a ban on the songs of girls older than age 12. The new ban would suppress women from singing in public. The Interpreter reported that music itself has long been a subject of both state and religious control in Afghanistan. The Koran does not specifically prohibit music, but some clerics have notably regarded music as a corrupting and shameful practice. Music was banned in its entirety under the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. 

 

The western world has leaped to the defense of women in Afghanistan, with the #IAmMySong movement. Others note that this is a regression for the basic human rights of women. The suppression of human rights through the banning of music goes much deeper than that, however. It strikes a chord throughout the Muslim-professing world. A chord that resonates with Republic Underground’s guest Najat Al-Saied who spoke with the news outlet during the Women’s Roundtable Month. 

Al Saied recalled how, in her life, as a Saudi Arabian media expert and journalist, she has been attacked by the clerics and mouthpieces of Islamism in the Gulf, including the late Jamal Khashoggi. Speaking with Irina Tsukerman during a live-streamed event on March 16, Al-Saied noted that the roots of Saudi Arabia’s Islamist cleric repression came from the consequences of defeating the Soviet Union and failing to question the role of the mujaheddin, or guerilla militias, in the world structure after that. She noted how the western world left these militias be for decades, and finally, their presence in the structure of the post-Soviet world order came to its head with acts of terrorism against the United States and the west. 

Tsukerman posed the question of how AlSaied approached the radicals in Saudi Arabia earlier in her career, after 9/11, but before the current political climate. Tsukerman noted that the attacks on the Saudis were still bad at that time, but that the U.S. and the Saudi government continue to collaborate. 

“Who did you expect this message to go to specifically?” asked Tsukerman. 

AlSaied recalled the period leading up to her public expression, recalling the trailblazers of women’s rights against radical clerics in Saudi Arabia. 

“After the war in Kuwait, in the early 90s, those women, you couldn’t believe what happened to them. They were attacked in every mosque, and they called them whores. Can you imagine what will be the reputation and life of a woman like this, when she is attacked in every mosque, and called whores and sluts? A lot of these women were not even able to live in Saudi Arabia, and some of them, not because of the government but because of the social pressure they had. They were called whores and sluts because they were marching for women’s driving,” said Al-Saied. 

Radical repression of women’s rights instituted by Islamists extremists weaponizes the role of the mosque and the religious institution in the society and turns the society against itself. The Interpreter made a note of this occurring likewise in Afghanistan. Public repression of women’s right to song has been tied to the honor code, where a man’s honor is associated with the honor of the women in his house, and where women are frequently banned from social gatherings as a result of this thought. Clerics of radical belief weaponize this social construct against itself, casting the opinion that woman singers or musicians have brought shame upon their families through their cultural expression. 

Al-Saied noted that the western world and activists did nothing to counter this suppression until after the 9/11 when the attacks became constant. 

“It was not so much for the good of Saudi Arabia as it was for revenge,” said Al-Saied, noting the way that activists noted that the “regime could not be changed” in Saudi Arabia because most of the Saudi people at that time sided with their government. Al-Saied noted that this was westernized wrong thinking because the gangsters and clerics such as Osama bin-Ladin were in direct opposition to the Saudi government, and were weaponizing weaknesses in the socio-religious structure of the nation against civilians. Al-Saied noted that Saudi Arabia should be alternatively thankful for its “wise kings” who opposed such radicals as Khomeini during the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. The ripple-effect passes through the region of the Muslim-professing world. 

Al-Saied felt a responsibility toward balancing the narrative and bringing the facts to light, as someone who was raised in the United States and Saudi Arabia at intervals. She noticed that the American politicians approached Saudi Arabia in its earlier domestic crisis from a place of anger, which she estimated was counterproductive to stabilizing the region against the gang-rule of militia groups such as Al-Qaeda. She also noted how the United States approached Iraq impulsively and that the political approach to Iraq did not lay down the roots of a proper liberalized system that would have promoted functional democracy in the entire region. 

“One mistake like this can cause disasters, and look what happened,” said Al-Saied, noting that U.S. involvement in the region did not build a role model democracy in Iraq, but rather created a consequential request. She noted that the western world thought revolutions such as the Arab Spring resulted in a backlashing rise of extremism because the social roots were not laid down first. 

She described, from a political science point of view, how the establishing of democracy before devolvement of the extremism would only result in backlash and dangerous stakes. She noticed that the system needed to be applied not only to the “cream of the cream” class but also to the lower class.

“The first thing we need to change is the educational system,” Al-Saied added, noting that the number of people receiving an education is one thing, but that the discussion must also focus on the quality of the education provided.

 

Al-Saied also described her experience during her Ph.D. studies. She noted that she was glad to have chosen London for her place of studies and not anywhere else because London was, as she described it, the “center of the Globe” and the hub of media and Arabic media. She met countless famous journalists and writers in her studies there. She was likewise invited to the BBC.

“The first experience that I had, I got a phone call from an Egyptian journalist. He told me ‘look what you are doing and writing on social media is so important.’ I told him that I was writing articles but in English. He said ‘no, no, in order to be influential in this region you have to write in Arabic.’ I said, ‘okay, Doctor, but I’m so worried about the backlash, about the people in the west, even with you differ with them, they can give and take. But in the Arab world, they will attack you immediately,” she recalled of her early life in media, working for an Egyptian newspaper. Al-Saied addressed an issue of society in attacking the expression of speech, in her particular case, of women’s speech.

She then began to write for Arab newspapers, as well as via social media and e-newspapers.

“I tried to divide my audience. I called them ‘the everyday audience’. I target them on social media and through the articles, that’s the everyday audience. Then there’s what I call my academic audience. I don’t expect an average listener or reader to go and read my studies,” she said over her academic research, that this work had a specialized audience she would reach out to in seminars and various spheres of her peer influence.

Dr. Al-Saied spent her career breaking boxes and targeting a large sphere of ripple-effect audiences in the Muslim world. Tsukerman asked her then how she went from influencing the English-Arab speaking world via social media discussion and how she came to write about Islamism. Al-Saied noted that she was more comfortable with her English audience because of the backlash that she has grown to expect from every article she writes.

 

“When I talk to them, they attack me. Imagine when I write in detail. Of course, there will be an attack. Why did I focus on radicals, and drifting from the social? Because they do have an impact on society. That was my main problem, personally. They made my life and the life of other girls my age at that time miserable because of their control. So, I can tell the huge impact of those radicals and extremists in Saudi Arabia, for example, through the religious institute on society. I am one of those who are resistant. But some women are not as resistant as me. They got brainwashed,” she said, noting how some of the women she had known as peers from school began to talk like the extremists who had suppressed their rights.

She noted that not everyone can resist. She noted that the clerics were everywhere, even the shopping malls, attacking everyone. So many people, she noted, went with the flow. She noted her opportunities and fortune of being taken abroad and having the opportunity to learn and to be educated foreignly, away from this control. She noticed how, due to clerical control, the women are completely dependent on social security no longer allowed to work even on farms.

She called out how the influence of radicalism promoting the narrative of “the true Islam” has suppressed even the working rights of women in Saudi Arabia to the point where now they are government dependants and the government suffers directly due to this shift in workforce demographics.

Core issues of suppressing women’s voice, from song to social construct to even the work force, is the problem. Radicalism and not regimes appear to be the force as the radical Islamists reshape society across international lines, in this discussion between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan the same social issue exists despite two different states heading these societies. In our next discussion on this topic, we address the logicial solution. The power of educational intervention.